Robert Hampton

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30th December 2011

Reducing your Overheads
Posted by at 8.51pm | 1 response | Liverpool, Trains

During the first half of the 20th century, any visitor to Liverpool’s docklands could not have failed to notice the Overhead Railway. The imposing elevated railway ran for 6 miles along the city’s dock road, from Seaforth in the north through to Herculaneum Dock in the south, where the line curved inland and continued in a tunnel to the underground terminus at Dingle.

Photo of Liverpool Overhead Railway route diagram

The line proved popular with dock workers and the inhabitants of the residential areas of Dingle and Seaforth. It also tapped into the tourist market, as the elevated structure, 16 feet above the ground, offered excellent views of the ships and activity in the city’s docks, which were otherwise mostly hidden behind fortress-like walls.

The good times didn’t last, however, as the effects of pollution and salty sea air combined to corrode the iron structure beyond economic repair. The last trains ran on Sunday 30th December 1956.

Today, exactly fifty-five years after the line closed, I paid my respects by visiting the Museum of Liverpool‘s new gallery dedicated to the railway. The Museum is fortunate to have one of two surviving carriages from the railway (the other is held by the Suburban Electric Railway Association at their Coventry base) and this vehicle forms the centrepiece of the new exhibit. The carriage is displayed on a short replica section of elevated track, in an attempt to recreate the appearance of the railway accurately.

Photo of Liverpool Overhead Railway carriage

There are lots of interactive displays all around, including an excellent 3D scale model of Liverpool’s waterfront, showing how the railway fitted into the surrounding area. There’s also a treasure trove of memorabilia from the railway – tickets, uniforms, timetables, posters, even a guard’s whistle.

Photo of Model of Liverpool Overhead Railway Photo of Memorabilia on Display at World Museum Liverpool

The jewel in the crown has to be the restored Carriage No.3 itself. It used to be on display in the old transport gallery of Liverpool Museum. There, visitors could only marvel at it from a distance from behind a railing. Now, however, you can go in and sit down on the famed wooden seats. They’re uncomfortable, but I suspect it would still be a better ride than a Northern Rail Pacer.

Photo of Interior of Liverpool Overhead Railway Carriage

As with so many aspects of Liverpool’s history, it’s impossible not to feel a tinge of sadness for what has been lost. The city fathers of the time should hang their heads in shame for letting such a prize asset disappear. On the other hand, the steep decline of the city’s docklands in the 1970s could have killed the line anyway.

But… imagine if it had survived. Perhaps it would have been upgraded and folded into Merseyrail. Or maybe it would have been a lynchpin for the regeneration of the docklands, like London’s DLR. Would the Merseybeat musicians of the 60s have written sentimental songs about it, in the manner of Penny Lane and Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey? Today, it would certainly have been a wonderful way for visitors to see the city’s regenerated waterfront.

Unfortunately, all we’re left with is the memories, but the Museum of Liverpool can be proud of the way in which they are preserving what little remains of the Overhead Railway.

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One Response
  1. Comment by Rob Baldwin
    30th December 2011 at 10:48 pm

    My granddad took my dad on the last ride of the overhead railway; funny we were just talking about it at Christmas. New York has done amazing things with its old overhead rail system, worth a google. It is a pity it didn’t survive to be an asset to the regeneration over the last few years.

    Happy New Year for tomorrow!